Delivering the bad news

A few weeks ago, a translation agency I work for occasionally called me in a panic. It seems that a major client had rejected one of their Japanese-to-English translations, calling it "unreadable," and providing another translation as a sample of the quality they were after.

The agency wanted to pay me to review their translation, and the sample provided by the client, and point out specifically what the quality problems were. They wanted to feed this back to their translator, who had been with them for several years and never had any quality complaints.

Being kind of a sucker, I agreed.

The original translation was indeed a big steaming pile. It looked like the (native Japanese-speaker) translator had spent a lot of time translating Japanese into English, but had never actually seen an English document.

The first thing that jumped out was that the file was full of double-byte characters. There were double-byte spaces mixed in, and instead of using a space and parenthesis ("hello (world)"), the translator had used double-byte parentheses ("hello(world)").

It was like a demonstration of all the things I have said to avoid in J-E translation. The English text itself was, as the client complained, unreadable. It was as if the translator had semi-randomly chosen an English translation for each Japanese word out of a dictionary, and mashed them together into semi-grammatical sentences. If it had ever gone through a "native checker," that person had done a lousy job, because the translation was still rife with basic errors like subject-verb agreement. Completely worthless as a translation.

I've seen a lot in this biz, but I was shocked by this. How could such an obviously unqualified translator have made it so long without complaint? My first thought was that the translator had been using a very good checker/rewriter, and for some reason, the translator had been unable to get the checker's services and had turned in the translation as-is. But then how had the agency missed it?

Then I saw what "Mika Jz" said in this post to the Honyaku mailing list regarding strange English in an email received from a client:

英語の読解ができる日本人でも、
それを見て「よく書けている、いい英文だ。」
と感じる人は多いのではないでしょうか。

それのどこがおかしいのか、については
おそらく、全く通じていないと思います。

And another possibility occurred to me: maybe the agency and its clients had been using "native Japanese speakers with good English skills" to proof this translator's translations. And since every Japanese word was translated, and every translation could be found in a bilingual dictionary, they must have thought that they were fine.

So I had a couple of possible explanations, but the question was how to deliver the bad news. If someone had asked me to simply evaluate the translation, I'd have said it was unreadable and useless, end of story. But the agency wanted feedback, presumably so the translator could improve. What to do? I personally don't think that this translator will be up to producing professional-level English text for many years (if ever), but I had to put it in a somewhat more diplomatic way.

So I wrote up a report, comparing several passages of the translation with the client's sample (which was actually quite good), pointing out errors or poor style (e.g. write "the team investigated the issue," not "the investigation of the issue was conducted by the issue-investigation team"), and finally stating that writing natural English requires an extremely advanced grasp of English that takes many, many years to acquire. Hopefully they'll get the hint.

Or at least make sure to get a "native checker" to rewrite all future translations by this translator.

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